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Iraq, Siding with Iran, Sends Essential Aid to Syria’s Assad

An image from a video uploaded by Ugarit News, a Syrian opposition Web site, shows anti-government protesters in Hama, June 17, 2011. (Photo credit: Agence France Press / Getty Images via the Washington Post)

By Joby Warrick

October 9, 2011

More than six months after the start of the Syrian uprising, Iraq is offering key moral and financial support to the country’s embattled president, undermining a central U.S. policy objective and raising fresh concerns that Iraq is drifting further into the orbit of an American arch rival — Iran.

Iraq’s stance has dealt an embarrassing setback to the Obama administration, which has sought to enlist Muslim allies in its campaign to isolate Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad. While other Arab states have downgraded ties with Assad, Iraq has moved in the opposite direction, hosting official visits by Syrians, signing pacts to expand business ties and offering political support.

After Iraq sent conflicting signals about its support for Assad last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke firmly against regime change in Syria in an interview broadcast on Iraqi television Sept. 30.

“We believe that Syria will be able to overcome its crisis through reforms,” Maliki said, rejecting U.S. calls for the Syrian leader to step down. His words echoed those of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who weeks earlier proposed that Syrians should “implement the necessary reforms by themselves.”

On other issues as well, the Maliki government in recent months has hewed closer to Iran’s stance — Iraq, for example, has supported Iran’s right to nuclear technology and advocated U.N. membership for Palestinians — as the U.S. military races to complete its troop withdrawal over the coming months.

Few policy objectives are more important to Iran than preserving the pro-Tehran regime in Syria, longtime Middle East observers say. …

“Iraq is sending a lifeline to Assad,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and author of “In the Lion’s Den,” a portrait of Syria under the autocrat.

Middle Eastern experts note that Maliki — a Shiite Muslim who lived in exile in Syria for nearly 15 years — has strategic and sectarian reasons for avoiding a direct confrontation with Assad. Members of Iraq’s Shiite majority and Syria’s ruling Alawite Shiite sect share a common worry about Sunni-led insurgencies. Some Iraqis fear that a violent overthrow of Syrian Alawites will trigger unrest across the border in Iraq.

But other experts say Iraq’s support for Syria underscores the influence of Iran, which has staked billions of dollars on ensuring Assad’s survival. …

“Iran is certainly important behind the scenes, and the Iraqis know the Iranians are looking over their shoulders,” said Pollock, now a researcher for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

[David Pollock, a former adviser on Middle East policy for the State Department] noted that Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — a firebrand Iraqi Shiite with tens of thousands of devoted followers — has publicly backed Assad, calling him a “brother.” …

Read the full report at the Washington Post


Related reports on this site

In Iraq, ‘Victory’ for Iran (Nov. 12, 2010)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Muqtada al-Sadr Rises to Power (Oct. 1, 2010)

Image: Followers gather for prayers in Sadr City, Baghdad, beside a poster of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
Followers gather for Friday prayers in the Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq, near a poster depicting radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (Photo credit: Karim Kadim / AP)

Pro-Iran Pact Emerges in Iraq (May 5, 2010)

US puppet Iraq Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and anti-U.S. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerge from their meeting in Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Wednesday Oct. 18, 2006. Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is the founder and is said by the US to be the leader of Iraq's most feared militia, the Mahdi Army. Picture: AP/Alaa al-Marjani
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerge from a meeting in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, in this October 2006 file photograph. (Photo credit: Alaa Al-Marjani / AP)

Muqtada al-Sadr on the March (March 31, 2010)

Image: Shiite demonstrators in Baghdad
Thousands of demonstrators march during a rally at Firdous Square in Baghdad, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called America “an enemy of Islam,” marched against a pact letting U.S. forces stay in Iraq until 2011 and toppled an effigy of President George W. Bush where U.S. troops once tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein. (Photo credit: Ali al-Saadi / AFP — Getty Images)

Iraq Set to Elect Pro-Iran Leader (Feb. 25, 2010)

Image: Moqtada Al-Sadr Supporters Rally Against US Presence in Iraq
Iraqi supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burn an American flag during a protest on Thursday, April 9, 2009 to mark six years after the fall of Baghdad to U.S.-led forces. (Photo credit: Muhannad Fala’ah / Getty Images)

Iran Ramps Up Nuclear Program (Feb. 22, 2010)

Iran North Korea Growing Threats
In this Nov. 30, 2009 photo released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency, Iranian technicians work with foreign colleagues at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, just outside the southern port city of Bushehr, Iran. (Photo credit: Mehdi Ghasemi / AP)

Iranian Covert Operations Continue in Iraq (Jan. 14, 2009)

Hardline demonstrators burn posters of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, during a demonstration in support of the people of Gaza, in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran January 13, 2009.
Iranian demonstrators, waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Death to Obama,” burned photographs of Barack Obama in Tehran a week before his inauguration as president as they protested against America’s inaction over Gaza. (Photo credit: Stringer / Reuters)

Iranian Approval for U.S.-Iraq Security Pact (Nov. 18, 2008)

Image: Iraq Cabinet
The Iraqi Cabinet approved a U.S.-Iraqi security pact, Nov. 16, 2008, now being considered by the parliament ahead of a Nov. 24 vote, following months of difficult negotiations. (Photo credit: Iraqi Government / AP)



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One Response to “Iraq, Predictably, Drifts into Iran’s Orbit of Influence”
  1. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » End of Iraq War for US Says:

    […] “Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy (in Iraq), the reality is that it left behind a budding police state,” she said. […]

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